Former Gulls Star Willie O'Ree Enters Hockey Hall of Fame - NBC 7 San Diego

Former Gulls Star Willie O'Ree Enters Hockey Hall of Fame

The first black man to play in the NHL finally got his place among hockey immortals

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    Former Gulls Star Willie O'Ree Enters Hockey Hall of Fame
    Willie O'Ree tries on his Hockey Hall of Fame jacket. (Getty Images)

    In the mid-1950s Willie O'Ree was an up-and-coming hockey player with immense talent but two things going against him:

    He was blind in one eye ... and he was black.

    Nobody knew about the first one. O'Ree was hit by a puck at the age of 19 and lost 95 percent of the vision in his right eye. Still he was able to overcome that and become a player worthy of a chance in the NHL.

    Everyone could see the second one, and at that time it was even more difficult to deal with prejudice than it was not being able to see. But Willie O'Ree was not going to let anything, be it injury or bigotry, get in the way of his dream.

    "At the age of 14 I had set two goals for myself," said O'Ree on Monday night in Toronto. "Play professional hockey and one day play in the National Hockey League. All I wanted was to be a hockey player. All I needed was the opportunity."

    In 1958 he got it, skating with the Boston Bruins against the Montreal Canadiens and breaking hockey's color barrier 11 years after Jackie Robinson did the same thing for Major League Baseball. O'Ree played 45 games and scored four goals with 10 assists for the Bruins. That was the entirety of his National Hockey League career.

    But he played professionally for 24 years, with eight of them coming in San Diego (seven for the Gulls and one for the Mariners, when he scored 21 goals in 53 games at the age of 43 in his final professional season). O'Ree opened the door for players like P.K. Subban, Grant Fuhr, Jarome Iginla, and countless others.

    For his impact, on Monday night, O'Ree was finally inducted to the Hockey Hall of Fame. He received his plaque from Fuhr, the goalie who won four Stanley Cups with the Edmonton Oilers and was the first black player inducted to the Hockey Hall.

    At the end of his speech O'Ree said the game has grown significantly but the NHL still has issues with inclusion. Then he reminded us all of the opportunity that he received and asked us all a simple favor.

    "I leave this with you," said O'Ree. "When you return to your communities take a look around. Find a young boy or girl who needs the opportunity to play hockey and give it to them. You never know; they may make history."

    Willie O'Ree, at the age of 83, is a hockey luminary who has dedicated his life to the game he loves -- the game he changed for the better and the game that finally recognized his impact by giving him its highest honor.